Measures of a Small Mind

How often a leader speaks of an idea or value signals its importance to him or her—or, at least, how important they think it might be to their listeners. It also suggests the range of their ideas. By these measures, the table shows that President Donald Trump has the smallest mind and most narrow vision of any recent US president, whether Republican or Democrat. The table discriminates against Trump in that he has served less than three years so far while the other presidents mentioned served eight years or (George H. W. Bush) just four. Still, it is clear that Trump’s references to positive values have been rare compared to his predecessors’.

Frequency of Key Words in Presidential Statements

The archive of presidential documents compiled at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shows that Trump has used the word “peace” just one-tenth as often as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; “environment,” one-tenth so often as G. W. Bush and Obama; “equality,” one-tenth so often as Clinton and one-twentieth the rate of Obama; “education,” nearly one-tenth as often as “W” but less than one-tenth the frequency of Clinton and Obama; “science,” one-seventh the rate of “W” and not one-sixteenth the rate of Obama.

You might expect the man who talks big to speak often about “power,” but Trump has used this word at one-seventh the rate of Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Obama. True to his notoriety as a skeptic about treaties, Trump has spoken of “arms control” just three times compared to Reagan’s tally at 468. As for “negotiation,” Trump used the word about one-fifth so often as Reagan, while Trump spoke of “cooperation “ at one-third the rate of Reagan and one-eighth that of Obama. Scorning the “United Nations,” Trump referred to that organization at one-tenth the rate of Clinton and even of “W.”

Though known for his interest in women, Trump has spoken of “gender” (as in gender equality) just 14 times—less than one-twentieth the rates of Clinton and Obama. The Georgetown-Oxford-Yale educated Clinton spoke of “complexity” 117 times; Obama (Columbia and Harvard), 92 times; Trump (Fordham and Wharton School undergrad), 17 times. While Clinton paid homage to “interdependence” some 110 times, and most other presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt, at least three times, the word did not ever cross Trump’s official tongue. (FDR spoke of “interdependence” 26 times; Truman, 5 times; Ike, 42 times.) Trump fell short even on “independence,” using the term not one-fourth so often as Reagan or G. W. Bush.

The official Trump spoke of “losers” only a few times, but did so often in uncounted off-the-cuff attacks on his opponents. By contrast, all his predecessors used the term only to warn that the nation or society or some individual might lose if policies failed.

Where Trump leads the pack is on ugly negatives: “crooked,” 25 times; “mess,” 26 times; “horror show,” 13 times; “currency manipulation,” 25 times; “hacking,” 16 times; “fake news,” 88 times.” But he also established a reputation for hyperbole: “genius” (usually his own), 29 times; “unbelievable” (his accomplishments), 92 times; “totally rigged” (against him), 63 times; “tremendous” (whatever he has done), 475 times!

The president who seems destined to make the United States less great has a mind and morality geared to expedite this decline.

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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